Zoey sat shivering in the serial killer’s Changfeng sedan, a cheap rental that nonetheless had a wonderful working heater that was pure bliss against her soaked pajama pants. She had driven away from the pond and parked in the shadowy rear of a building downtown that was marked as a real estate office but by its shape had clearly once been a Pizza Hut. Zoey put her head in her hands and tried to gather herself. The hologram man in her phone was now sipping from a glass of scotch, while under him scrolled a notification that her mother had tried to call.
Zoey said to her phone, “All right. Who are you again?”
“Will Blackwater. I worked for your father.”
“Right, and he’s dead? Did I hear you say that?”
“Yes. In an accident. There was . . . an explosion.”
“What, was it a meth lab or something?”
“No, nothing like that. Or maybe it was, no one is quite sure. I’m terribly sorry for your loss. He was . . . a great man.”
“Mr. Blackwater, I only met that man like two times in my entire life. The first time I ever saw him was when I was eight. It was my birthday. He gave me a football, because somebody told him I was a tomboy. The last time I was sixteen, so it’s been . . . six years at least. He was a total stranger to me. So why would him getting exploded to death cause people to come after me?”
“It’s just a misunderstanding. But there is a contract out on you and you’ll be in danger until we clear it up.”
“A contract? As in, whoever kills me gets paid a bunch of money?”
“They actually need you alive.”
“Oh, well, at least there’s that.”
“But the contract specifies that after you’ve served your purpose, they can have their way with you. It’s difficult to explain and also moot, as long as we’re both in agreement we don’t want you falling into their hands. Zoey, we you need to come to the city. Have you ever been to Tabula Rasa?”
The actual spelling of the city’s name was Tabula Ra$a, with a dollar sign instead of an “S,” because that’s what happens when a bunch of rich douche bags build a brand-new city in the desert and reserve the right to name it themselves.
“I’ve never been, and I’m not going now. I’m going to the police. And then I’m going to bed.”
“That would be a mistake. We’ve already made plans for accommodations here, we already have a car on the way. It will be there in a few hours. We’ll give you a location and a limousine will—”
“Wait, a limo? How many drugs did Arthur Livingston have to sell to afford one of those?” She was never going to refer to the man as her “dad,” since the connection was genetic only and she would disavow even that if she could.
“Listen, Zoey, this must be done quickly, for everyone’s sake. There could be other bad guys en route right now.”
“I . . . I’ll think about it. I have to talk to my mom.”
“It’s dangerous to involve her. You shouldn’t even go back home.”
“I’d need to pack a bag. And I have to tell her something.”
“Tell her that your father unexpectedly passed and his estate has requested that you make an emergency trip to meet with his associates. Tell her you were so stunned by this news that you drove your car into a pond. Tell her that to compensate you for the inconvenience, the estate is prepared to pay you fifty thousand dollars. That last part is true, by the way.” He paused, to let that sink in, then added, “That should cover the damage to your car plus pay you the equivalent of a year’s salary in addition.”
Zoey had a solid line of reasoning in her brain that demonstrated with perfect clarity why she should refuse, but it was quickly obscured behind a chorus line of dancing dollar signs. Fifty thousand was actually way more than one year’s salary—she worked at a coffee bar, after all. It was the kind of money that could get her and her mom both out of the trailer park, or to a nicer trailer park, anyway. It could get her back into school. She could get a degree in some lucrative field, like nanotechnology. Then she could open a quaint little nanotechnology boutique in Fort Drayton, next to the bait shop. Still, Arthur Livingston was a criminal, which meant this man who “worked” for him was also a criminal, regardless of what kind of fancy little suit he wore in his holograms. That meant the chase that had just occurred was really between two factions of bad guys—he had, after all, just told her not to go to the police.
She asked, “If I leave, how do I know more bad guys won’t come after my mom while I’m gone?”
“If you leave, they’ll have no reason to. The contract is on you, not her. But if you stay, then I guarantee you that more of them will come, which means that just by delaying, you’re putting both you and your mother in danger. Making this trip is literally the only safe option.”
Zoey remembered the psycho’s soft call—come back off the ice, sweetie—and shuddered.
She said, “All right, how do I know you’re not just more bad guys trying to collect on this ‘contract’ yourselves?”
“Honestly? We don’t need the money. And if we meant you harm, couldn’t we have just driven your car into an abutment earlier?”
That made sense, she supposed. Still, she wasn’t getting into a car with any of these people. Even if she decided to make the trip to Tabula Ra$a—which on some level she knew would be incredibly stupid and reckless—she’d find her own way there.
Will said, “Are you still there?”
“Prove the money offer is real.”
“Hold on. All right, check your account. I just sent you five hundred dollars.”
Zoey logged into her bank account and found he wasn’t lying—she now had a total of five hundred and seventeen dollars in her savings. Zoey sucked in a breath and thought, we can get the refrigerator fixed.
Will said, “The rest I can put into an escrow account, give me twenty minutes and I’ll set it up . . . if you agree to make the trip.”
“I’ll think about it. But don’t bother with the car, if I go, I’ll take the train.”
“Ms. Ashe, I would strongly, strongly advise you not to—”
She hung up.
It was seven PM; if she took the train out of Denver, she could be in Tabula Ra$a by midnight. She pulled into traffic, not realizing that a tiny camera The Hyena kept on his dash had recorded her entire conversation, or that more than 1.5 million people were watching.